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You can't stop people talking ... even if their story isn't true

So the Auckland District Health Board is investigating possible breaches of patient privacy in the eel-up-the-bum affair that captivated the nation? Good luck with that.

Board bosses are adamant hospital staff must keep this sort of information a tightly guarded secret. That's fine in theory, but unrealistic in practice.

Put yourself in the shoes of a doctor or nurse unwinding with a glass of wine at the end of a day in which a member of the public has "presented" with an eel up the backside.


When your partner asks, "So, how was your day?" are you really going to reply, "Oh, you know, same old, same old"? l don't think so.

In fact, this is how urban legends get started.

Without loose-lipped staff, there probably wouldn't be a whole sub-category of urban legend that involves celebrities requiring medical procedures after ill-advised sexual or para-sexual activity, often involving foreign objects becoming lodged in their bottoms.

There can be few middle-aged New Zealanders who aren't familiar with the Kiwi version, which involved a deceased television personality whose anal accessory was the container of a currently unobtainable yeast extract product.

The daddy of them all, of course, is movie star Richard Gere and the unfortunate gerbil that found itself in the back passage to nowhere.

For the record, a reporter at National Enquirer, a US supermarket tabloid which doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story, spent six months investigating this tale without coming up with enough supporting evidence to reach NE's extremely low substantiation threshold.

However, it's likely that this myth, which seems as universal as Coca-Cola and as persistent as 9/11 conspiracy theories, is based on an actual, albeit less lurid, event: someone who wasn't famous presenting at a hospital with something less intrusive than a live mammal up his bum.

A toy mouse, perhaps.

Now we must wait and see which Kiwi celebrities will be outed by the rumour mill as the person who went into Auckland City Hospital to have an eel extracted from a most unnatural habitat.

Rest assured, it's only a matter of time before you are told by someone who "has it on very good authority" or heard via his mate's uncle's bridge partner's next-door neighbour who was on duty at the time that the patient was an All Black or a politician or someone who appears regularly on TV.

Rest assured, too, that in this telling the eel will be a lot bigger than a decent sprig of asparagus.

Not that fear of being talked about should deter anyone who finds themselves in this predicament from rushing to the nearest health facility.

The fact that eels do not belong up homo sapiens' rear ends was starkly reinforced a couple of years ago when a Chinese man who'd passed out in an alcoholic stupor died after his drunken friends inserted a swamp eel in his rectum.

These cases, along with that of the poor fellow who died after winning a cockroach-eating contest in Florida this week, are salutary reminders that one of the most plaintive refrains in the English language is: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

I suppose I might as well confess that I was the source of the mysterious humming noise that this week drove some Wellingtonians to distraction.

It was the sound of me struggling to suppress the urge to howl with laughter at Deputy Prime Minister Bill English's claim that New Zealand's role as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is more important to the country than hosting the Rugby World Cup.

Don't get me wrong, I'd be quite happy if that was indeed the case, not least because my latest novel is one of the New Zealand books being translated into German as part and parcel of our guest-of-honour status. I just don't believe it.

Even if you take a sceptical view of the claims made about the four billion global TV audience and $800 million in direct tourism receipts that flowed from hosting the World Cup, it's hard to believe that being in the spotlight at a German book fair will deliver more of these benefits.

Certainly expectations of a tourism surge could be ill-founded. As writer Paula Morris pointed out, our literature doesn't necessarily portray Aotearoa in the same light as tourism board marketing campaigns: "It can be dark, complex and problematic."

Not to mention inclined to take itself way too seriously.